The Church In Exile: Following Jesus In A Strange Land

I went to a concert a few weeks ago where Blowing In the Wind, the classic protest song, was the first song out of the gate. The crowd, filled with longing for any bit of hope they could find, erupted into sustained applause.

All I could think about was how Blowing in the Wind is a pretty good description of the church these days.

We find ourselves searching for the right soil to root and sustain a Cross-shaped community in rapidly changing times and a constantly shifting landscape. It isn’t easy to pass on to our kids the faith that has carried us for so long and through so much. It’s a challenge to bless a world that’s been on fire for so long it’s forgotten how to recognize the healing that can come in a cool breeze.

That’s what happens when you dare to seek truth in an old story that promises good news in a world captivated by anti-heroes and held captive by fake news. That’s what happens when you try to speak when fewer people want to listen, often as a result of others who have spoken for you. That’s what happens when you seek to live into a calling to be a light to nations who wonder if your light hasn’t been out for a while.

And so today, we are haunted by the question of whether the words we know and the stories that shape us are enough. We’ve tried to use different words and mold our stories into other ones. We’ve walked the path others have trod before, seeking comfort in cultural standing and security in political power.

Because that’s the natural response when you are faced with insecurity and vulnerability. That’s what you do when the ground beneath you shifts.

But what you discover is that the powers and principalities don’t have what you need. What you find is there is a cost that comes from using the words of Washington. There’s a price to be paid when the Kingdom of God starts to sound a whole lot less about God and a whole lot more about kingdoms. Trading the vocabulary of sin and redemption for political action and demographic research opens up a void that can’t be filled.

What we’ve lost is the ability to speak words with enough weight to hold life. The price we’ve paid is in forgetting how to tell a story of a Kingdom of plenty. The void we feel comes from missing the vision of a God who is building a table big enough for anybody who wants to be fed.

Exile

The words and images evoke the opening of the Psalms as well as a story Jesus told about a sower. But the word from the Bible for this is Exile.

Exile stands at the heart of the Bible; you can’t understand the narrative of Scripture if you don’t know about Exile.

When Nebuchadnezzar scaled the walls of Jerusalem in 587 and destroyed everything in sight, Exile entered the Jewish vocabulary and imagination. But Exile is more than an event; it is a tragedy that forced people into a new way of life filled with questions about faith, a crisis of identity and a search for answers about what went wrong and how they were going to rebuild out of the rubble.

The prophets, of course, had warned that Exile was coming if the people didn’t turn from their wicked ways and return to the ways of the Lord. Disaster was looming, the prophets thundered, and it wasn’t too much for God to use someone outside of Israel for God’s purposes – someone, like say, Nebuchadnezzar. But hearing that Exile was a possibility and facing the consequences of its gut-wrenching reality were two different things.

Exile doesn’t end God’s relationship with Israel, but it does bring about hard lessons and new questions.

As people who had been evicted from the land, they were forced to reckon with the character of God’s promise. As those who have been ripped away from their families, some to never see their children again, they had to wrestle with their own identity and the character of the God in whom they had heard about if not always trusted.

They had to come to grips with whether God could be worshiped apart from a Temple that was once the center of their lives. They had to learn how to trust God again in a world where even Jerusalem wasn’t safe. They had to figure out whether their way of life could still hold, whether the patterns they had come to count on still made sense in a world a whole lot different than the one they thought they knew. They had to decide if God’s mercies were new each morning was a promise they could count on or whether those were just words that sounded good.

In sum, they had to do theology in the midst of trauma. They had to study and pray and, most importantly, they had to remember. They had to take note of their experience with God and remember the testimony of their ancestors. They had to remember that God had been on the move with them before there was a temple, that God has showed them the way out of slavery in Egypt and that God had not been confined to a building but had been mobile in a cloud.

They all don’t come to the same conclusion about the best way to proceed; the response to Exile isn’t uniform. Just like today, different groups proposed different solutions to the new reality. Some sought a military solution to overthrow their captors while others explored isolation in search of a place where they could practice their faith undisturbed. Still others advocated for some sort of assimilation that involved adopting the culture of their new home.

At their best they sought to be faithful to the God who had sent them into Exile but who wasn’t done with them just yet. In the end, the people came to realize they were paying the price for breaking the one rule you do not break, at least when it comes to being in relationship with God. Idolatry – seeking security in anything or anyone but the God of the Covenant – always leads to disaster. But they clung to the hope that their lived disaster wasn’t final because the God they knew was one whose mercy never ran out. Their hope centered on the truth they knew more firmly than anything else – they were still bound to God because God has chosen to still be bound to them.

Exile forced the people to figure out what they really believed about God and what being in relationship with God was going to look like in this new world order. It wasn’t just about how to sing the old songs in a strange land but about how to trust God while longing for home.

Discipleship For An Exiled Church

The first practice for following Jesus as a people experiencing Exile is confession. To live in relationship with God involves owning up to the ways we have traded radical trust in God for the allure of power and principalities. It involves taking seriously the error of our ways and acknowledging the price we have paid for chasing other gods.

The closer we get to Jesus the more we remember that life with God isn’t about the preservation of a way or life or relishing in the new opportunities other kingdoms promise. Instead, faithfulness is centered on radical trust in the God who has called us into being. That means placing our lives not in the hands of powerful people or institutions that have spanned centuries, but in the rock who has promised never to walk away or forsake us, abandon or leave us behind.

Confession, then, leads to repentance and reorientation. Exile reorients by teaching us that the words and stories we so easily gave up are actually the anchors of the life with God we so desperately need. Searching for a foothold in a shifting cultural landscape has shown us that the place we can put down roots is the old story told in words we’ve heard plenty of times before.

We are learning that despite all the technology we can get into our hands, our lives still hinge on our fundamental relationships – with God and the people close to us. The Gospel is reconciliation – and new creation is still the balm we all need for the wounds that fester among us and within us. Sin that ravages our lives and wrecks our communities might have new hashtags, but what we most need hasn’t changed – sin for grace and redemption for brokenness. The hope for a day beyond exile still rests in the relationships that God wants to give us.

Confession and reorientation lead us to trust. It is the potential to rediscover the trustworthiness of God that redeems the bitterness of Exile. Exile isn’t pleasant and it isn’t without deep costs. But we can be restored through Exile if we learn once again that God can be trusted.

The path forward isn’t in doing it the way we used to do it and we can’t find it in a new system or a creative structure. That’s because the path out of Exile is the path out of the Wilderness and is the path that leads to Golgatha. The way forward is rediscovering how to walk with the God who is still here, even in the strange land. The gift is the presence of the God who still makes it possible to sing even when the ground seems unsteady. The life out of Exile is rediscovering how to depend on the God who delivers on the promise never to let us go.

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How Do You Read It?

There are few books that grab our attention and unsettle our minds like the Bible.

I was reminded of that again this past Sunday as we talked in our church about how we can say with conviction and understanding that the Bible is true.

You could see it on the faces of our people. You could hear it in the comments on the way out of church. A friend who doesn’t normally come to church was there on Sunday and could not stop talking about how the sermon affected him. A few days later he was still talking about it.

I don’t believe it was the quality or force of the preaching. Instead, I am convinced that one of the deepest desires people have, both inside and outside the church, is to learn how to read the Bible with wisdom and confidence.

People are searching for help because they want to know how they can trust the words of a book that they have been around, in some way or another, for their whole lives. People are searching for a better way because they know the way the Bible is leveraged as a weapon in hot-button debates doesn’t seem right but they don’t know how to articulate a better alternative. People are searching for a way to deepen their understanding and relationship with God but feel like they will never have enough knowledge to get through the historical, cultural and religious details that can make it so hard to understand. People are desperate for guidance about what it means to live a good life and how the Bible can help them find the way to discover that kind of existence.

One of the few things that most Christians can agree on is that the Bible is true. It is the how that often ties us in knots that keep us stuck.

The truth of the Bible isn’t found in quoting chapter and verse in debates that the book was never intended to solve. Instead the gift of Scripture is the way it guides us to understand the truth – about ourselves, about the world we live in and about the character of God.

The Bible tells us the truth by setting us in the big story that defines our lives.  As we read and take in the pages of Scripture we don’t get bogged down in the details that can be useful for trivia, but instead we grow in the truth that God is the One who loves us and is for us. As we read this book we come to discover that God’s essence is relational love and that our lives expand according to our capacity to receive and be transformed by this love.

As we experience the joys and heartbreaks that come as we make our way through adulthood, we take hope in the Bible’s declaration that what is most true about us is that we are God’s beloved. As we try to figure out who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do we rest in the truth of Scripture that God invites us to a vital role in God’s mission for the world. When we’ve messed up and wonder how we will ever recover, we remember that forgiveness is God’s way.

As we listen to the voices of Scripture we come to discover that there isn’t anything we experience that can’t be described or explained by the broad narrative of God’s story.  As we come to understand the world in terms of sin and grace and temptation and redemption, we realize the events we call news are really just the most recent manifestations of the same old story.

We notice how our dream for a way beyond our divisions sounds eerily familiar to Paul’s declaration that in Christ God is making a new humanity. As we wonder how it will ever get better we anchor ourselves in God’s ministry of reconciliation. We become encouraged when we remember that God tears down dividing walls. Our spirits are lifted as we read that when we work to cross boundaries we are in communion with a God who does the same.

When we provide a shoulder for our friends who cry out for justice we remember that racism and sexism and poverty are the expressions of deep-seated sin that emerges out of the cracks in our relationship with God and one another. As we feel powerless to combat the institutions and powers intent on maligning God’s good creation we remember the cries of the Exiles and recall God’s stubborn tendency to make the implausible gloriously real.

“The Bible”, Eugene Peterson writes in As Kingfishers Catch Fire, “is the best book for discovering the all-inclusive reality in which we exist and then for initiating us into it.”

The Bible, then, is more than an old, interesting book. It is the story that tells us who we are and it is an invitation to the good life. It is more than a book of details and quotable lines.  It describes who we are made to be. It explains the world that often defies explanation. Most importantly, it reveals the depth of God’s love for us and invites us to live in the grip of this love.

No wonder it matters so much.

 

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Keep Knocking

Some words just stay with us. No matter what we do or where our lives take us we just can’t get rid of them. They appear out of nowhere and find us in the middle of the night, only to stay for a while in the times when we would rather think about anything else.

You can read some of the words that like to torment me in the fourth chapter of Ephesians.  They interrogated me all those years ago when I first considered Jesus and they have returned with a vengeance lately:

“I beg you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”

It’s hard out there for everybody, it seems, and certainty for those of trying to lead in and through the church. People are angry and overwhelmed. We see it most clearly online around politics, but that’s far from the only place. People are generally scared and overwhelmed. And so we lash out and we tell people what they have to do. We long for a better way but we also seem to have given up the belief that such a way is possible. We once believed in exceptionalism. Now we settle for inevitability.

I, like seemingly everyone else, am anxious too. I wonder what it means to take on a ministry of reconciliation in a world that gets more fractured and pulled apart every day. I search for answers as I read and pray in a sea of problems that seem too large for me to solve. I keep looking for a way beyond despair from powers and principalities that seem much too large for me to influence or confront.

What does it mean to be faithful to the Gospel I trust right now?  Indeed, those old words are back. What is required of me to live a life worthy of the calling I have received?

Jesus once told a story to explain prayer and action. He talked about someone going to a friend’s house late at night in search of bread. The moral of the story was this: keep knocking.

He said that if you keep knocking the door will be opened. He said that if you keep knocking someone will listen to you. He said if you keep knocking even though someone’s first instinct is to keep the door shut and pray the knocking will end, if you keep at it the door will eventually swing wide open.

Living a life worthy of the calling means to keep knocking. So even when it feels like it doesn’t make a difference, we are going to keep gathering people to read our Story that says God is preparing a table for all the children of the world. When it seems like no one is listening we are going to keep telling the truth as we understand it. When the shouting is only getting louder we are going to make space to listen because we know that God hates a divided world and is making a better one. When we are hungry for a better way we are going to gather around a Table because we know the one thing we have in common is a desperate need to be fed. When we wonder if there is anything we can possibly do to make a difference we are going to work and pray because we’ve come to believe that without God’s help, it might be impossible.  But we have seen that when God gets involved justice does roll down like waters even if the water hasn’t reached everybody just yet.

To trust in the God of the Bible is to trust that truth – that God is with us. And so as followers of Jesus we trust that the best way to transform the world is to do the things Jesus told us to do. After all, he said he came not to condemn the world or even to leave it alone but to transform it and renew it with love.

It is because we know that we aren’t alone that we can keep knocking. We can keep knocking because we know we don’t have to take on the powers all by ourselves. We can keep working at reconciliation because we know God is at work in it with us. We can advocate for justice again and again because we know that we aren’t working on our own. We can do the seemingly innocent but actual radical work of reading and living in this Story because we know God is still writing it in and through us. After all, Jesus told us that we were to be his witnesses, and that God was giving us the power and the wisdom to do it well, despite ourselves.

It is easy to get discouraged and to feel overwhelmed. It is easy to believe that your work and your life don’t have the power to make anything change.

But you aren’t doing this stuff on your own. You can live a life worthy of the incredible calling you have received.

Don’t give up. Keep knocking.

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When Preaching Means Meddling

I walked upstairs Saturday morning and announced to anyone who would listen – my wife, my dog, my two-month old baby – I just don’t know how to finish this sermon.

The text of Scripture was on mercy and compassion. The text of the week was President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration.

Gospel and News, Faith and Life. They make the best sermons. They produce the most sleepless preachers, too.

I’ve yet to figure out how to be one of those preachers who just preaches “The Gospel” and doesn’t pay attention to what’s happening in the world. Our Gospel is one of Incarnation, of God coming into the world because God so loves the world. And so, the way I see it, to be faithful – to myself, to the Scriptures, and to the people who trust me to help them interpret what it means to follow Jesus in 2017 – is sometimes going to involve connecting Christian faith with a social issue or two.

Or sometimes faithfulness means you just have to meddle.

And in the aftermath of a contentious political season and a tumultuous civic life that I’m not betting will calm down anytime soon, preachers are going to have to keep wrestling with how and when to meddle.

So here are a few things I’ve learned about meddling.

1. It’s Always About Jesus

Most of the people in the pews, or chairs, have been in church a long time. They are smart enough to have a pretty good idea about your political leanings. They are also smart enough to know whether you are honestly trying to preach about Jesus or whether you are using Jesus to make the point you want to make. They are much more likely to listen to you if they trust you are trying to be faithful to the Gospel and help them become faithful in their own discipleship. Our job isn’t to build a voting bloc but to point people to Jesus and to a life committed to building his Kingdom.

2. Lean on Scripture 

We follow the Narrative Lectionary in our church, a series of Scripture readings designed to help us live more fully into the Biblical Story.  It has been amazing the number of times the assigned reading for the day has intersected powerfully with issues in the culture. And the people in our church who pay attention to how we plan worship know that when I have something to say that might make us uncomfortable it is grounded in a Scripture text that has been chosen for me not one I went looking for to prove a point. Particularly in more theologically conservative churches, if it comes from the Bible people will listen to you. That doesn’t mean they will agree with you, but they will listen to you.

3. Pick Your Spots 

People, particularly these days, are inundated with analysis and opinion on about politics. CNN, Fox, The New York Times, their local newspapers, the radio, social media – it’s everywhere. Most of them are not looking for your opinion as well. People will listen and allow you to preach as you feel called, but you can’t make every sermon about the news of the week.  People are looking for messages of hope and grace, how the Gospel intersects with their daily lives and in the ways that won’t make the evening news – how to be a better spouse, what Jesus has to say about raising their kids, how to spot God’s Spirit in the hospital, the cemetery and all the places in between.

4. Own Your Bias

All of us live with bias, we pay attention to certain things and ignore others. One of the best ways to understand our bias is by asking why do we get our news in the places we do – MSNBC isn’t purely objective and neither is Fox. Part of my own sinfulness is my bias – I am willing to see certain points of view as more non-negotiable than others. This same bias lives in every person in our churches. If I am going to challenge or question one side I have to be willing to take on the other side when they go astray from my interpretation of the Gospel. The Gospel is political, but in a different way than we think. Gospel politics transform and judge all of us, regardless of ideology or affiliation.

5. Don’t Be Afraid 

Fear Not. Jesus says this more than almost everything. It’s been my experience that most of the things I usually worry about end up causing me the least amount of trouble. The headaches usually come from things I never see coming. Although people might prefer you not preach about certain topics, they also lose respect for you if you don’t. One of the fastest ways to lose spiritual authority with people is to let them know you aren’t willing to stand up for what you believe. Most people, particularly your leaders, want the church to lead with moral authority even if we disagree about the particulars.

6. Make Yourself Available 

At their best, sermons provoke conversations – about Scripture, about life, about what it means to be faithful to Jesus. Every sermon, particularly those that dabble in controversial topics, are opening statements and not the last word.  I hope and expect people will talk to me about what I said. I want to make space for people who disagree to have the opportunity to engage with me.

There will be people who disagree, and sometimes strongly. As the preacher I have a privileged place and microphone in these conversations. So stand up, make yourself available, and let people be part of the conversation. Most of the time people just want to be heard and reminded that you value them and that God loves them. Disagreement about the application of the Gospel does not mean we have to write the person off.

This isn’t an exhaustive list. Just a few things I’ve learned. How about you – how do you proclaim what you believe with integrity and humility in contentious times?

 

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There is No Mold

A few weeks ago a friend posted a question online – what are the most important things you have learned since beginning full-time ministry?

That is a good question, and like most good questions, his prompted plenty of answers.

The thing I’ve learned the most, particularly since becoming a lead pastor – the person with whom the buck stops, the one people most often look to for an answer about what the Gospel means in the world-on-fire 2016: There is no mold.

We’ve been invited, no more than that, instructed to jam ourselves into the ways of life created by ministry superstars, to preach like they do, to speak with their cadences, to build the ministry they were called to and to reach the kind of people with the Gospel that God uses them to reach.

But that mold doesn’t exist – that’s what I’ve learned over and over since being dropped in the middle of three unique country churches in the shadows of the mountains a few years ago. The one size fits all open it up and run it straight out of the box church kit is an illusion. I suspect it always has been.

To be a leader in the church in 2016 is to accept a charge as a risk-taker, a summons to be an innovator and a call to be a pioneer. The ways and the practices we’re used to in church aren’t as reliable as we have been told they always have been. Anyone who tells you they have a plan and a formula that is guaranteed to work for you is either selling you something or lying, and probably both.

This is the truth I’ve learned, whether you spend most of your days in a church or whether you wouldn’t know one if you drove by it on the way to work.  And if you live near me, you pass a slew of them on your way anywhere.

Life doesn’t come with easy solutions and guaranteed outcomes. The things that work for you might not work for your neighbor. The strategy that helped your colleague thrive at work might leave you with egg on your face when you try it. Your best friend might be able to balance being a parent and sole provider but you know that’s a guaranteed disaster for your family.

The only thing that matters, the only way ministry works, the only way to thrive in life and help connect people with God is to be the authentic person you’ve been created to be and lead with the special and unique gifts God has given you. Read the books, learn what you can, it’s all good. But in the end, living with integrity and finding the path to flourishing comes by using the tools and embracing the passions you have been given. Then you just get to sit back and watch God use them to connect with people in ways you never imagined.

That’s what brought me to this point, today, to writing my first post at a website and domain that has my name on it – without the safety of WordPress in between.  It’s scary. It’s intimidating. I’ve wrestled for weeks whether it was the next step in faithfulness or a master class in pretentious arrogance.

And yet, here I am, doing something I thought I had left behind a long time ago.

For five years I wrote almost every day – about things people care deeply about, care too much about – I wrote about college football. But then I didn’t. I began full-time ministry a few years later and decided that writing was something I used to do, something I did before I do what I do now.

The people I was told to read didn’t blog. The preachers I was pointed to didn’t write, other than about how to supersize your church using their formula (Five simple steps to show Peter how to really catch fish!) To be a pastor who writes, who helps people think about their faith and the places they live their lives, to be a writer who pastors people online, well that didn’t come with the mold. (Of course, if I had paid better attention, or knew where to look, I would have found that there were plenty of teachers out there to help me live into this calling.)

About eighteen months ago that began to change.  A friend donated some money to my church earmarked for my continuing education. And so I went, all the way across the flyover states, to a weekend writers conference in California. I spent two days talking about writing and dreaming about how my ministry and my writing might intersect. On the flight back I made a covenant to start writing again, to use the gifts God has given me, not as an addition to my ministry but as an essential part of it.

What happened is that blogging helped me learn to love writing again. I saw the ways that writing on the blog made me a better pastor to the people all around me. Writing once a week taught me how to discern, how to come to understand what it was I was called to speak about and what was better left for others. I discovered that my words not only helped me notice grace, but helped others locate it, too.

I often found that the posts I felt the worst about were the ones that spoke the most to my readers – funny, how God can even use the Internet to teach you how it’s not about you.  Grace shows up in the weirdest places.

Paul’s image of the Body in I Corinthians has become almost trite in the church. We know the sermon almost before the preacher gets there – many gifts but one Lord, some apostles, some teachers, none better than the others, we need each other.

We remind each other of this, though, because we need it and because it’s true.

There is no mold. There is no pre-packaged theme. Only you, living and giving the gifts you’ve been given.

Use them, share them, and sit back and watch what happens.

You do your thing, I’ll be here doing mine – watching, listening, waiting, and finally, writing.

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